Greg Jennett, ABC News24, Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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21 March 2023

 SUBJECTS: AUKUS; Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment; Online Casinos; Safeguard Mechanism.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: We're about to roll into our political panel, when very shortly we'll be joined by Labor frontbencher and Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite, can actually confirm Matt is here right now. Welcome. Very shortly we’ll bring National frontbencher Bridget McKenzie into the show. I think there's been a few things going on in the Senate chamber as well as yours in the Reps but I'll start with you while we clear the way for Bridget to approach. The points Josh Wilson makes there about nuclear waste, legitimate to raise these questions but is he alone? How many in Caucus might harbour some misgivings about this project?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: They're legitimate questions, and we're confident that we can answer them and placate many of the concerns of people like Josh. What we have said in terms of the nuclear waste issue is that the submarines have the nuclear reactor welded in, so they don't come out for the life of the submarine. This means that we don't have to deal with this issue until the 2050s, at the earliest so we've got a bit of time. And what we have announced is Defence will work with the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency on a plan to ensure that we've got the necessary facilities in place that we can safely and responsibly deal with nuclear storage into the future. So we've got a bit of time and we think we'll be able to placate concerns such as the ones that Josh has announced.

JENNETT: Alright. There was an additional point he made, which is planting a seed of doubt, that this deal, between Australia, the UK and the US may not be the last of its kind. In theory he's right, isn't he? Doesn't it send a signal to other nuclear-powered naval countries, there's only six of them in total, Australia would be the 7th, but sends a signal to them that China, for instance, might wish to enter into similar partnerships and share that technology.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we can only speak on behalf of the Australian people, and the philosophy we're taking is, of course, that Australia should have the best capability to defend its people into the future. And we're an island nation, and when it comes to submarines the best technology is nuclear propulsion, conventionally armed but nuclear propelled. They offer stealth, speed and range that is simply far greater than any other type of technology. So, if we're going to have that best capability to defend Australia in the future, we need that technology and that's why we're making these investments.

JENNETT: Alright, pleased to announce that Bridget McKenzie, very busy woman and Nationals Senator, has made it into the studio and we appreciate the scramble. Welcome, Bridget.


JENNETT: Talking about Josh Wilson, and, look, to be fair, a small number of other Caucus members who are registering concerns. How far is the Coalition going to push the politicisation of this dissent and dissent may not be the most accurate description but they're putting down a few markers anyway.

MCKENZIE: Well, Greg, this is one of the great legacies of the Coalition government, and we absolutely support AUKUS 110%, and it's not just going to lead to the submarine build but, as Matt alluded to, there will be many great advantages to this trilateral agreement over the - outset Matt and my time in Parliament, it will be for many, many generations but I think what you're seeing with Josh's comments is that, you know, the uniting of the caucus for AUKUS isn't actually working for Albanese. And if you talk to Labor grassroots branch members, as I'm sure Matt does, a lot of them agree with Keating, so I think this is a real problem going forward.

JENNETT: Can you be absolutely certain that each and every member of the joint Coalition party room is as rock solid on this, particularly when money arguments, funding arguments, start coming into it. It's not unthinkable that we might yet discover a couple of doubting Thomases on your side, too.

MCKENZIE: I think what you will find across both the Liberal and National Parties is less about squabbling on who gets what jobs where, through what program, but that we are united in keeping our country safe, not just for our generation but for generations to come, and an agreement like AUKUS will actually deliver on keeping our country safe now and into the future, and I think that's what we're absolutely all focused on. I think it's incredible that Josh can't see on that point, Greg, the local advantages to his own communities in terms of great paying careers over time.

JENNETT: Well, I think he did acknowledge - he did acknowledge a bit of that and then went to put down what are probably philosophical, if not intellectual doubts.

MCKENZIE: Keating-esque.

JENNETT: I don't know about that but from an international point of view, are you conscious, when these debates are had, and you're saying that they’re welcome and worthy of having, Matt, but if Australia were to have too many of them in this place that might be unsettling to the UK and to Washington?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think we need to remember, Greg, that we took this policy to the last election, and it's a bipartisan commitment. It was announced by the previous government. We said we would adopt it after we were briefed by the Australian Defence Force. So we're delivering an election commitment. That's the first thing to say. Josh has certainly got to right to raise these issues in the Parliament. Henderson, where much of this work may take place, is in his electorate, so they're legitimate questions. But at the same time we're confident that we can answer those questions and ensure the Australian people that these issues will be dealt with safely and in accordance with Australian law and international law. You know, there's going to be a diversity of views across Australia. Not all Australians are going to agree with in, but it's the right thing to do in our nation's interests. We got an election mandate for it and it's bipartisan.

JENNETT: The die is cast, Bridget.

MCKENZIE: Yeah, sorry. I think your question's a good one, Greg, for giving confidence to our partners in the AUKUS agreement, and it is critical that the Prime Minister makes sure his own Caucus can sing from the same song sheet. We're not even a year in. And this was an election commitment that I'm sure Josh actually ran on as part of the Labor platform.

JENNETT: Sure, but maybe also critical that what is disagreement there is isn't overplayed which I think was one of the questions...

ASSISTANT MINISTER: You've seen criticism in the United States and the UK. That's democracy. People are entitled to their views but at the end of the day our caucus is united behind this decision and we'll get it done.

JENNETT: Alright. Since we like talking about splits, Bridget, are you aware - we're talking here about the Voice machinery bill, and that's really front and centre in the Senate now. I think you started on debate a little earlier. You broke away from it and you'll come back to it in the Senate but some in the Coalition are looking for a last-minute face-saving deal where in fact you can lock on, as you did not in the House but you may in the Senate, to support this bill. Are you in that camp?

MCKENZIE: Well, Greg, you know the National Party's position on the substantive question and you're right, what we're debating in the Senate right now is how will the referendum be conducted and we're interested in a fair and informed debate. We're a great egalitarian country. We need to make sure that when we are asking the serious question about changing our nation's foundational document that every single voter has the information they need to make an informed choice.

JENNETT: That's pamphleteering?

MCKENZIE: That is the pamphlet but it is also, Greg, making sure that it's free from foreign interference, so that is making sure the official Yes and No cases mean we don't have overseas actors influencing our debate here because this will be a very serious and potentially contentious debate and we don't need it to be used by other players. It needs to be for and by Australians.

JENNETT: Matt, I'm sure you're watching this closely for other reasons which go to maybe the next referendum beyond this, but it is clear from the Prime Minister and others that the Albanese Government would like to extract bipartisanship on the Machinery Bbill alone if not next week's one as well. Is there some possibility of agreement on the very point Bridget raises here, which is about some administrative cost covering for the Yes and for the No campaign.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we want to make sure that we keep this as simple as possible and as much like a Federal election campaign as possible. What Australians are used to when they go to vote, and that's why the machinery provisions have been updated to cater for the changes that have occurred in elections at the Federal level over recent years.

JENNETT: It does that but it's unusual because for the first time, correct me if I'm wrong, it has not allocated money to the formal Yes and formal No?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We have close to $10 million for the education campaign and we believe that's important, that Australians are educated about the issue and can make an informed decision. Now, the Coalition said that they wanted a pamphlet to go to

all households with the Yes and No case. We weren't proposing to do that originally but in the spirit of bipartisanship and trying to get some agreement from the Coalition we have agreed to that.

JENNETT: You've added an extra step.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: That's being negotiated. I can't comment for Don Farrell, the Minister. He'll have responsibility for that. We're trying to make it as much like a Federal campaign as possible with this extra education campaign that will be funded by the taxpayer. We don't think that you need to fund the Yes and the No cases because there's going to be plenty of support in the community for those - both campaigns, and the government funds the education campaign, that's probably enough.

MCKENZIE: But, Matt, to be fair to your point that you want it to be like a Federal election campaign, we can track donations in a Federal election campaign because there are the official parties that those donations have to be funnelled in, and so that it's all very open and transparent for the public. You're not doing that by not allowing there to be an official Yes and official No campaign for this particular referendum. That's what we're asking for.

JENNETT: And would you support it, Don Farrell, it appears to be in play for Don Farrell. Are you actively pursuing that agreement with the hope that you can pull bipartisanship?

MCKENZIE: I hope so, Greg, because we all have to respect the outcome of whatever happens at the referendum, right? It has to be a moment where we accept it and we can accept it if the process itself has integrity. Everyone can have confidence in that. And that's why having that official Yes and No case to funnel donations through and to be sort of that trusted source of -- source of knowledge for either side of the campaign is so important.

JENNETT: Alright. One final one, Matt, online casinos, the ABC has been reporting at least one firm from the Caribbean seems to have got through and managed to advertise in in country. Can that be closed off?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, it should be because it's illegal. And that was a great report from the ABC that uncovered what was going on. It's illegal under Australian law, under our gambling laws, to their service, and I understand that they're doing it through social media, through Facebook predominantly.


ASSISTANT MINISTER: And it should stop. The government's looking at that and making sure that the law's upheld.

JENNETT: Is that a regulatory thing as far as you can tell, Bridget McKenzie, or one of enforcement and technology?

MCKENZIE: Well, if it's already illegal and it's happening, then it would tell me that's an enforcement issue. But at the end of the day it's about big tech. We have seen issues with TikTok, we have seen issues with data breaches. This government needs to get serious about protecting Australians from overseas big tech companies that are using our data and - through this example outlined by the ABC potentially exposing Australians to illegal gambling.

JENNETT: Alright. And the Safeguard Mechanism been discussing a lot today, Matt, the IPCC report, everyone is using it to suit their argument for and against the bill. But what likelihood and that this will actually be put to rest in the next 48 hours or so?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm hopeful we'll get that important reform through Parliament in this sitting fortnight. I think it's perfectly highlighted by this fact. The companies captured by that, top 200 commuters, generate about 273 million tonnes of pollution a year. Without the Safeguard Mechanism, business as usual, that will rise to 83 million tonnes 2030. If we get the Safeguard Mechanism in place, it falls to 52 million tonnes 2030. That statistic highlights why we need to get this reform. It's emissions increasing and falling under the Safeguard Mechanism.

JENNETT: That's the argument Bridget McKenzie but none of it alters your view.

MCKENZIE: No absolutely, we had a credible path, lowering emissions over time that wouldn't cost people their jobs and would put downward pressure on energy prices. What we're seeing this government under -- are pricing going through the roof F they do a deal with the Greens on this getting coal and gas out of our economy and flipping very quickly to, you know, a more reliable - the renewable energy sources we're just going to see prices go through the roof. The IPCC, the bits I love about - and I would love Matt, the Labor Party to adopt this recommendation from the IPCC, that you cannot get to net zero globally without the adoption of both nuclear and carbon capture and storage as that pathway forward, as technologies that are absolutely essential. You can't pick and choose on the IPCC I'd say, Greg.

JENNETT: There a 1-hour debate we're not having today but we might have next time. Bridget McKenzie and Matt Thistlethwaite. Thanks both. Thanks for coming back. We'll talk soon.



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